14 March 2015

PTSD: Pt. 1, Falling back and finding answers

I've been avoiding this post for...5 months now? I really should write it...bleh. Lets go.

When Noah passed away I felt peace. I finally knew he was safe. I finally knew he was okay. In a way it was a relief for all three of us. The few weeks he lived after leaving our home were hell. An absolute, torturous, hell. I went from literally saving his life several times every day to having no idea how he was doing and knowing he was in a place where those caring for him didn't have all the information they needed to keep him alive. 

All night and day for 5 months I had cleared his airway every time he vomited from his transient bowel obstructions. I'd vent his feeding tube, turn him on his side, pat and rub his back, then suction his entire airway (nose and all the way down his throat) while his apnea monitor blared the warning that he had stopped breathing or that his heartbeat had stopped for too long. That was my life, and despite the constant urgency and alarm, it was working. Its somewhat difficult to explain. There was this constant level of extreme stress, anxiety and worry but at the same time a sense of calm that everything, that HE, would be okay. He was there and his smile and progress showed that everything was working and paying off.

I spent those weeks he was away from us thinking of him almost constantly and knowing he was going to die. I KNEW he couldn't survive with the way things were but I kept trying to calm myself and attribute those feelings to the hurt of being cut off and the dramatic change of going from his high-stress caregiver to...nothing. "He's okay" I kept telling myself, but my whole body screamed that he wasn't, that he would soon succumb to the circumstances. Then he did.

Like I said, after he passed we felt peace and knew that finally he was okay. We started to heal. While we felt peace the pain of knowing he was no longer here was sharp. It felt a bit like a literal, physical injury and I felt I knew how to heal both from injury and from the grief of losing a child. This was our third time grieving the loss of a child and there was a familiar pain to it. I knew the things I needed to help heal my heart and that it would take some time. I knew that just like a physical injury I would need time to rest, tend to the wounds and gradually resume activity as I felt able. Daniel and I continued with our grief therapy and tapered off as we healed.

After a few months I was doing a lot better. I knew he was okay, I had felt his sweet little spirit around our family a few times, we were healing and I knew that everything was going to be okay. Then things started going backward.

Rather than generally feeling happy and hopeful with small dips of heartache I began to feel almost constantly down with spots of sunlight. I kept asking myself and others, "How do I tell the difference between understandable soul-crushing grief and full-blown depression?" We had lost a child. It was completely reasonable to feel the worst grief of my life, but how could I tell when it was more than just that? How long could it be healthy to grieve so deeply?

I tried to busy myself and be good about doing the things I knew I needed to heal and be happy. I knew I needed sleep, time outside, healthy food and exercise. Those are the things that usually keep me emotionally healthy, but they just weren't working. I sunk lower and lower and tried to keep myself distracted but found that hard to do when I didn't want to see or talk to anyone. I didn't want to talk to anyone I had met in the last two years. I only wanted to be around people I had known before all this, who knew who I really was, that this broken shell of a bitter woman was NOT me. At the risk of sounding like a narcissistic hippy, I am resilient sunshine. I'm foolishly optimistic, I am a full-faced smile, someone who finds value and intrigue and the daily and mundane, and I'm tough as nails to boot. I knew I was not the bitter, shattered, pessimistic, aching, forlorn, wallowing specter I had become.

I did EVERYTHING I knew to help and still I sunk lower. I became more withdrawn, cried more often and felt any hope slip further and further away. I couldn't understand why I was getting worse rather than better. The anxiety grew stronger until finally I broke in the form of a full blown panic attack one night.

I don't remember what the trigger was but suddenly my throat was tight, my breath was racing and tears were pouring down my face. I went to our bedroom where Daniel was, sat on the foot of the bed and for the first time completely understood the expression of wanting to "jump out of my skin". I wanted to scream, run, anything. I was in full fight or flight mode.

I sobbed/panted/half-screamed to Daniel, "I feel like I need to run into the other room and save my baby! I feel like I need to run to him, to save him! I know he's gone but it's like my brain and body are screaming that I need to save my baby!!!" I couldn't understand what was happening which made it all the more frightening. What was happening?! It didn't make any sense! Why was I having such a horrible panic attack and feeling that I needed to save the life of a child who I knew was already gone?

The panic attacks became more frequent and each one was exhausting. I was having 3-4 a day. I was crippled. I needed Daniel with me as my anchor to keep me feeling safe and able to handle everyday things. If it weren't for the flexibility of Daniel's job and his ability to occasionally work from home I honestly don't know that I would've survived.

I didn't understand what was wrong with me and why I was going the wrong way in my healing. Like I said, I was doing EVERYTHING I knew I needed to heal and regain my hope and despite my efforts I continued to move no direction but down. I felt so STUPID! I didn't know what was wrong with me. I feared I had been irrevocably broken by all the trauma of the past few years that had been capped of in such a horrifying way.

I asked Daniel to make another appointment with our therapist. I needed help, I needed direction, I needed to know what to do because living like this wasn't sustainable. When we met with him I explained everything and the possibility of PTSD was mentioned. "You're about in the time period that PTSD would make sense." PTSD usually starts showing about 6 months after the severe trauma - we were 6 months out from the time Noah had been away from us. I had never heard of PTSD except in those who had been to war. We went home, looked into PTSD and every single part of it lined up. I finally felt I had an explanation for what was happening to me.

Because of personal experiences earlier in my life I have always been VERY anti-medication. At this point I could have gone straight to medication to treat the PTSD but I was afraid. I had so many fears about the effects and damage I had watched medication cause in people in my life and I didn't want to risk putting my family through that. I was terrified of becoming something I had worked so hard to stay away from.

There are some parts of this time period that I don't like talking about out loud. Parts I've only recently even been able to admit and say to myself. Some parts I don't think I'll ever talk about except at those quiet, tender times with the right people. Suffice it to say I finally hit what was my "rock bottom". I knew I couldn't drag myself through one more terrified, panicked, horrified, exhausted day. I needed help, medical help, psychiatric help and I needed it NOW.

(PTSD: Pt. 2, Getting Help)

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